How Queensland’s food manufacturers are moving forward in technological leaps and bounds
Queensland: perfect one day, extreme weather the next. Yet the state’s food manufacturers are proving not only resilient to the worst climatic conditions but tech savvy, with a raft of world-beating innovations.
It’s been a hard couple of years for Queensland’s food manufacturers. The drought may have broken, but it’s still having repercussions throughout the state. And in its aftermath, flooding has caused billions of dollars of damage and huge livestock losses.
Nevertheless, the never-say-die attitude of Queenslanders means vitality and innovation continue to shine through in the food-production sector and the state is still an agricultural hotspot, despite what Mother Nature has thrown its way.
The proof is in the numbers. According to the Queensland Agriculture Snapshot 2018, produced by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland’s 1.7 million square kilometres incorporate 34% of Australia’s total farm area and produce 94% of the nation’s sugar cane, 47% of its meat cattle herd, 34% of its cotton, 33% of its grains and 30% of its vegetables.
More than 50% of Queensland’s agriculture and food output is exported overseas; about 20% is “exported” to other states, and about 25% is consumed within the state.
Despite the extreme weather conditions, the agricultural sector is still reaping huge financial benefits for the state. For 2018-2019, the total value of Queensland’s primary industry commodities (combined gross value of production and first-stage processing) was forecast to be but about the same as the average for the past five years.
Export markets are vital for the rural sector – the state’s proximity to the Asian market offers huge advantages. The most favourable trading partnerships are with India and Japan, with each taking some $2 billion in exports, while China takes $1.4 billion, South Korea $1.06 billion, Indonesia $1.1 billion and the US $1 billion.
Official figures also reveal the sector’s changing profile: from 2006-07, outputs have moved away from sheep and wool, dairy, sugar and wheat towards poultry products, fruit, cotton and cattle.
All of these figures are music to the ears of the state’s food manufacturers, who comprise the biggest manufacturing segment in Queensland. According to a Queensland Productivity Commission (QPC) report, food manufacturing accounted for 28.6% of the state’s manufacturing sales – well ahead of primary (11.5%).
Food manufacturing remains the biggest employer in the sector, too, employing half as many more people than machinery and equipment (26.1% compared to 13.7%). And the sector leaves agriculture in the shade when it comes to the export market: food and beverages (largely meat, sugar processing and fruit and vegetable processing) contributed $9.1 billion (52.4 per cent of total manufacturing exports) in 2015-16, according to the QPC report.
However, to remain successful against agile, often cost-focused competitors in other states, regions and countries, the sector will need to keep innovating to leverage Queensland’s strategic . These advantages include a partnership-focused ecosystem, proximity to lucrative Asian markets, extensive state and federal government support and ground-breaking academic research.
Driven by innovation
Innovation and the willingness to embrace new technology are two factors driving the small-to-medium food-manufacturing sector in Queensland. Combined with support from the state government through grants, the state’s manufacturers are equipped to compete with the best the country has to offer.
A case in point is Sunshine Coast-based food manufacturer Epicurean Products. In 2017, the business received a grant of $514,955 under the Made in Queensland program – helping to power improvements that reduced production time by 30% and created six new jobs.
A small-to-medium business-to-business provider with about 40 employees, Epicurean provides what managing director Tim Spence Thomas describes as “sauce as a service”: the manufacture of more than 100 fresh sauces and dressings for several national brands. Its products are consumed by about 3 to 4 million Australians every month.
“We are a food manufacturer, but we also consider ourselves a technology business,” Spence Thomas says. “And obviously underpinning that technology is a significant amount of energy and investment that goes into research and development.”
Epicurean Products has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years to create technology Spence Thomas describes as making foods “fresh for longer”.
“We’ve just announced to a number of our customers that we’ve increased the shelf life of our products by up to 25% without cooking them or incorporating preservatives and additives,” he says. “This solves a problem for our customers who deliver supplies across a continent as vast as Australia.”
According to Spence Thomas, the company’s food science team has applied 10 years’ worth of experience and data to create the fresh-for-longer technology. This also involved extensive testing and validation undertaken in partnership with food science consultants and third-party laboratories.
“We were sitting on a mountain of data that we are required to keep,” he says. “Rather than let it go to waste, our food scientists started to look at patterns – in particular how certain ingredients act as natural preservatives or barriers.”
While the initial project was developed over more than 12 months, the testing and validation phase took even longer. “It’s one thing to develop new knowledge but it’s essential that the work to validate the science and test it extensively within laboratory conditions is done properly,” says Spence Thomas. “Food technology is as much about ensuring food safety and quality as it is about innovation and it’s in this area where you can create significant competitive advantage.”
Extending the usable life of food is the objective of another innovative business based on the Sunshine Coast. Naturo Technologies and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Wholey Milk Company, have obtained a global patent for a process that delivers fresh milk for a minimum of 60 days chilled shelf-life.
According to the company, the process, developed over the course of five years, has been independently tested and validated by a leading Australian scientific organisationnd approved by regulator Dairy Food Safety Victoria.
Naturo chief executive Jeff Hastings – an agricultural engineer with more than 30 years’ experience in the sector – recently told the ABC the approach “provides a far more gentle and minimal processing technique that does not rely on heat to kill the bugs, if you like, in the milk that is at the core of pasteurisation”.
Naturo reports that the process kills more pathogens than pasteurisation and the milk is healthier than the pasteurised alternative, as it retains higher levels of vitamins B2 and B12, and fully retains enzymes central to liver function and bone development.
It’s not the first time the company has introduced a new technique: it has already made a name for itself with a process called “Natavo Zero” that it claims switches off the enzyme that causes avocadoes to go brown.
Enter academic expertise
Queensland’s academic institutions are also exploring the role of data and new technologies in agriculture and food manufacturing innovation.
The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) – part of the University of Queensland – is changing the way agricultural activities are conducted through genetically modified organisms (GMOs), global positioning systems (GPS), remote sensing, genomics, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technologies.
QAAFI is pursuing opportunities arising from “digital agriculture”, which uses integrated and computerised tools and information to improve decision-making and productivity across all areas of food production. This will help to transform everything from genetics and farm management to transport and may deliver significant flow-on benefits to the state’s food manufacturers.
Some of QAAFI’s current projects include:
- research into the profitability and sustainability of cereal and legume cropping systems in tropical and subtropical environments
- developing more temperature-tolerant varieties of sorghum crops through a combination of genomics, phenomics and modelling to cope with extreme heat events
- predicting the likely paddock performance of breeding material based on a combination of biological data, climate records and machine-based crop improvement
- integrating satellite data, field experimentation, modelling tools and socio-economic data to generate new science that supports decision-making for economic, environmental and social outcomes to design farming systems better able to deal with production, climate and market risks.
Meanwhile, Professor Bhesh Bhandari and Dr Sangeeta Prakash of the University of Queensland’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences are working with one of the most transformational technologies to emerge in the past four decades – 3D printing – to determine its application to food.
Bhandari told Asian Correspondent: “There are many potential advantages of 3D printing technology being applied to the food sector, including customised food designs, personalised and digitalised nutrition, the simplification of supply chains, and the ability to broaden the source of food inputs.
“It also allows you to cater for people with both differences in age and ability, such as children, or elderly people with swallowing problems. As an example, we’re able to print a meat patty that looks just like any other hamburger, but is much easier to swallow, offering a real improvement in quality of life for many people.”
Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, is also applying technology to help producers and manufacturers in Queensland create opportunities in domestic and international markets. Dr Ciara McDonnell, a research scientist at CSIRO Agriculture and Food specialising in the meat industry, is working closely with small-to-medium manufacturers looking to scale-up products, avail themselves of different funding structures and help them seize opportunities that emerge from global trends.
McDonnell, who is based at CSIRO’s Coopers Plains facility in Queensland, co-ordinates with a national team spread across Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The Victorian capital is the location of the organisation’s food innovation centre pilot plant, that hosts trials with industry and in-depth research. A second pilot plant also operates at Coopers Plains and is home to the organisation’s conventional meat-processing equipment, as well as a ground-breaking technology called Shockwave.
“Reduced ageing time and achieving more consistently tender meat is what we’re working on,” says McDonnell. CSIRO is operating the world’s second pilot-scale Shockwave machine – and the only pre-commercial device outside Germany – and is testing the machine for the meat industry. The machine discharges electrical currents underwater and imposes stress on material that causes tearing, disruption and, in the case of meat, tenderisation.
For the meat industry in Queensland, the technology may reduce processing times and enable companies to get the product into the hands of consumers more quickly.
CSIRO is also working with a range of other technologies to open opportunities for food producers and manufacturers. “Within food, one of our major unique selling propositions is a novel processing technology suite that aligns with modern trends,” says McDonnell.
One of these trends – impacting food manufacturing businesses in Queensland and worldwide – is the move towards “clean label”: removing additives from processed foods. “Consumers want to read a label and recognise the ingredients,” says McDonnell. “It’s quite a challenge to not use additives as they serve important purposes like preservation so removing them has to be done very strategically and scientifically.”
CSIRO is testing novel technologies that aim to meet these objectives and, performs cost-benefit and lifecycle analyses to determine how to make a product healthier in the most efficient way.
Extending the shelf life of products is another key driver. “A lot of our technologies specifically target microbial cells and don’t affect any of the nutrients or flavour or colour molecules,” says McDonnell. These technologies include pulsed electric fields, microwave, plasma and high-pressure processing – specifically high-pressure thermal processing, which is about to be scaled up for commercial applications.
Assistance in abundance
As Queensland’s extreme weather events have plunged some food producers into crisis and disrupted the supply chain, the effects are also extending into food manufacturing.
According to the March 2019 Rabobank Rural Confidence Survey, while farmers in the north-west of the state were coming to terms with flooding that inundated an area the size of Victoria and killed potentially half a million head of cattle, their counterparts in the rest of the state were lamenting ongoing dry conditions.
However, many primary producers have proved resilient, which is good news for food manufacturers.
The longer-term outlook is considerably more positive, with the state government working modelling support through the Queensland Agriculture and Food Research, Development and Extension 10-Year Roadmap and Action Plan.
The plan details how the state aims to capitalise on its competitive advantages and deliver opportunities for growth. “Queensland’s internationally recognised agriculture and food research development and extension underpins a productive, profitable and sustainable sector” reads the vision.
The sector’s challenges extend beyond extreme weather and climate change to include issues such as access to funding and investment capital, the adoption of research, development and extension of outputs and gaps in skills and capabilities.
Yet the rewards of a vibrant sector are nonetheless compelling. According to the state government, these include:
- new technologies, tools, and plant varieties that enable producers to remain economically viable
- high-quality, safe food and agricultural products that are affordable and available year-round
- increased exports and growth in regional jobs.
The Made in Queensland program that enabled Epicurean Products to create new opportunities is also delivering benefits to other small-to medium-size – and even larger – food manufacturers. Under the $40 million initiative, eligible businesses can apply for grants of between $50,000 and $2.5 million to become more productive, grow, innovate and create knowledge-based jobs for the future.
Pixie Ice Cream is a beneficiary of this program. The business received a $1.5 million grant that allowed it to install automated wrapping and boxing technology in its Toowoomba manufacturing facility. This technology is delivering savings of $1.1 million per year in operating costs, increasing distribution capacity and the ability for Pixie to develop its presence in the Asia-Pacific region and North America. The business is also increasing employee numbers from 87 to 110 and training 26 staff to use the new equipment.
The Queensland government also offers food innovation grants and other support to enable businesses to reach new customers, enter new markets, increase profits and encourage research and development.
Meanwhile, AusIndustry and the Australian Taxation Office offer a research and development tax incentive that encourages businesses to invest in R&D activities. The incentive provides a 45% refundable tax offset to eligible businesses with a turnover of less than $20 million per year and a non-refundable 40% tax offset to all other eligible businesses.
AgriFutures Australia, a federally funded organisation that aims to develop the long-term prosperity of Australian rural industries, also provides grants for food research and development.
The Queensland Government’s Innovative Food Technologies group also helps businesses to conduct food process development and trials and prepare products for market evaluation and research.
The federal government is also providing extensive support to the sector. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science offers an entrepreneurs’ program that supports businesses in four ways:
- accelerating the commercialisation of novel products, services and processes
- providing access to experienced business advisers and facilitators to help improve business practices and competitiveness
- helping incubators foster Australian start-ups
The perfect location
Queensland’s agriculture and food manufacturing sectors are ideally positioned to service markets in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. The Export Council of Australia (ECA) noted recently that the size of , and that these consumers are likely to seek “high-quality, safe and reliable foods from trusted sources”.
The ECA noted that Toowoomba and its surrounding regions – including the Maranoa, Western Downs, Southern Downs, Goondiwindi, Burnett and Moree – are becoming “a food-producing powerhouse” for Australia. Recent private and public investment is delivering billion-dollar infrastructure projects that will improve access to road, rail, air and port facilities.
The Queensland government has committed $10 million to fund a to boost rapid access to international markets for agricultural producers, as well as stimulate high-value farming and processing and create jobs in regional Queensland. More than 30 regional businesses and communities submitted proposals to host the pilot centre as part of a selection process that began in May 2018.
Wagner Group Holdings from Toowoomba and Air Freight Handling Services from Cairns have made it to the final round, having been selected to develop business cases to locate the new distribution centre at their local airports – Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport and Cairns Airport respectively. A decision is expected later this year.
Other regions, such as the Darling Downs – regarded as one of the world’s top 10 most fertile areas, according to Trade and Investment Queensland – and the Sunshine Coast are forces to be reckoned with.
According to Spence Thomas of Epicurean Products, location and partnerships with like-minded business are integral to continued success. “One of the factors behind our growth is our positioning in the midst of an innovative, buoyant supply chain,” Spence Thomas says. “We’re ‘close to the source’ when it comes to producers and those people are very partnership-driven.”
Naturo Technologies and Wholey Milk are equally dedicated to the region. “We are a Sunshine Coast-based food technology business that has a history of producing world-first technology innovation,” Hastings says.
“The Sunshine Coast region as a whole is becoming well known around the world as a hub for major fast-moving consumer goods companies, showing the world that we are innovators and can produce high-quality food products that are needed all over the world.”
Despite the Queensland agriculture and food manufacturing sector’s recent difficulties, the outlook is robust. The state is Australia’s “blue heeler”: loyal to food and manufacturing and always moving forward.